For my daughters
They say a woman always knows when something is wrong with her body and Deborah Burke can personally attest to that. Call it woman’s intuition, but four years ago while breastfeeding her two-year-old daughter, she started getting pain in her arms.
“It felt as though the milk in my breast wasn’t flowing properly. After a while the milk started slowing down,” she recalled. “Then my hand started hurting; it started to get weak.”
Deborah decided to make a trip to the doctor who confirmed that the milk had hardened in the breast.
“She told me to get some hot towels and put it on the breast. I did that but after a couple of days my hands still felt weak. I didn’t do anything with them. So I went upstairs at my workplace to see the doctor, who told me to go and do an ultrasound.
“I did go to the doctor at Bayview and while I was there she did the ultrasound and told me to hold on because she wanted to get another doctor to look at the ultrasound. Then after a while she told me they wanted me to do a mammogram as well.”
Although feeling concerned, Deborah went ahead with the mammogram.
“She didn’t say what was wrong, but she brought in another doctor,” Deborah said. “I said to myself that something would have to be wrong that they keep bringing other people. So I said to her, ‘Tell me what’s wrong’, but she said she couldn’t tell me. I told her I still wanted to know. She told me it looked like cancer.”
Deborah was completely blown away.
“I walked out but I couldn’t walk when I got out of the doctor’s office. I saw two ladies when I was walking out and I collapsed or something because when I came to, these two ladies had lifted me up and taken me to their car. But I don’t know what happened.”
What added to Deborah’s angst was the fact that her mother and two aunts had died of breast cancer.
“All that was going through my head was my two children,” she said. “I come from a family with cancer on both sides, and seeing my mother and two aunts . . . it was too much.”
After a biopsy and further tests, Deborah then had to have surgery to remove the lump, the breast and surrounding lymph nodes.
“The doctor had to give me a lot of counselling as well because I was fearful of not getting through it,” she said. “He had to keep talking to me to give me confidence.”
The surgery was difficult enough but Deborah wasn’t prepared for the chemotherapy that followed.
“All I kept thinking about was Serena and Mikayla. What hurt me was that before my mother would have been there to help out with the children. She was real close to my kids,” she said. “Then I thought what if I had passed this on to my kids because it runs in my family, but then the doctor told me to let us work on getting me well.”
Deborah’s road to health was paved with lots of pitfalls.
“I didn’t know the chemo was so bad,” she revealed. “After having the chemo I had to inject myself with medication to keep my blood count up. At first I would sit half the day with the medication in my hand. My girlfriend Sharon Grant would talk to me and tell me, ‘You have to do this for your children’.
“The first time I went to the QEH for treatment I just sat there and cried and cried. I always thought cancer was for old people, but when I went I was so shocked. I saw young women, old women, all kinds of people and I just sat there and cried.”
After having a bad reaction to the first dose of chemotherapy that required Deborah to be hospitalized, the doctors had to adjust the doses to complement her body.
“They had to shorten the doses because it was too much for my body,” she said. “The doctor still had to give me counselling because after that first dose I didn’t want to go back. But I did. My gums turned black, my hands turned black and my feet and I lost all my hair and I was always a hairy person.”
It was during those moments when she looked at her body reeling under the effects that Deborah admitted she started to question God.
“Sometimes I would ask God, ‘Why me?’ she said. “I didn’t go to church and I thought God was punishing me for that. But then I realized that God hadn’t given up on me, so why should I give up?”
Deborah found the strength and courage to fight. Through the support of friends, family and even the management at her workplace, who was incredibly supportive, she battled through.
After completing chemotherapy and getting additional tests which proved that the cancer hadn’t spread, the doctors decided to forego the radiation therapy.
“The last day of chemo I was so happy,” she said. “But if it wasn’t for my friends and family, I wouldn’t have gotten through it.”
Though Deborah is now cancer-free and rebuilding her life and health, there are moments when she still worries about the cancer recurring.
“I always said I wouldn’t give up. I said I would fight to the end; even if it took my last breath I would fight to the end. I have my girls to live for.”